To see, by land and sea

Learning: Baltimore's first tours by amphibious vehicles will give visitors a new view of the city and several young people jobs in the tourism industry.

March 30, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Ford Expeditions, pull over. An even bigger vehicle is rumbling through Baltimore, drawing worried looks from drivers with its 4-foot tires, seating for a family of 36, bulletproof steel sides and weight of 13 tons.

Talk about off-road capability. Beside the steering wheels of these $200,000 monsters are not only switches for fog lights, but also six-wheel-drive, midship bilge pump and anchor.

Three of the British military's Stalwart amphibious invasion vehicles -- equipped to cross land and water -- will begin offering tours of the Inner Harbor on Saturday as part of an educational organization's efforts to attract more visitors to the city's historic sites.

Living Classrooms Foundation has launched a program to drive and splash tourists on the combination tour boats/vans from the corner of Light and Pratt streets through Fells Point, Federal Hill, Fort McHenry and the harbor, said James Piper Bond, president of the foundation.

Tickets for the 90-minute voyages will cost $18.95 for adults and $9.95 for children. The rides will be like those offered by amphibious tour boats in Boston, Miami, Providence, R.I., and other cities, where tour guides give narratives about local history as their passengers enjoy the breeze and spray on the open-air crafts.

These aren't SUVs so much as USVs -- Urban Sea Voyagers.

"This is the only land-and-sea tour being offered in Baltimore, and it will allow people to see not only the harbor but also the historic neighborhoods surrounding downtown," Bond said as the vehicle turned heads during a test-run through downtown traffic.

The 15-year-old foundation teaches work skills to about 50,000 young people a year by giving them jobs in the tourism industry and by offering hands-on classes on everything from shipbuilding to the biology of the Chesapeake Bay.

In April, the foundation launched a program to incorporate 15 historic sites ringing the Inner Harbor -- including the Constellation and Fort McHenry -- into a single tour called the National Historic Seaport of Baltimore.

The foundation sold 455,000 tickets to the individual sites last year and 10,000 combination passes to all locations. It hopes the amphibious tour boats, an expanded water shuttle service and a variety of discounts will boost individual ticket sales this year to 765,000 and combination passes to 50,000, Bond said.

With money and help from First Mariner Bank, the foundation bought nine harbor shuttle boats it will call Seaport Taxis. These will improve the water taxi service already available around the harbor, ferrying tourists between sites and commuters from the Inner Harbor to Canton and Locust Point, said Edwin F. Hale Sr., chief executive officer of the First Mariner Bank.

The amphibious vehicle went on a shakedown cruise this week.

The voyage started with the Stalwart -- looking like a bulbous, black and blue beetle with two water jets jutting out of its rear -- parked on a boat ramp just south of the foundation's waterfront campus at 802 S. Caroline St.

The vehicle has six wheels, two rows of seats, open windows, dozens of bright red life jackets and a low-slung cockpit surrounded by plastic glass.

On the sides of the vehicles, which have been nicknamed "pirate ships," are grimacing faces of pirates and logos of the Peter Pan Bus Lines Inc., which owns the vehicles and has a contract with the foundation to run the tours.

A dozen pupils from Lombard Middle School giggled and elbowed each other as they scrambled up a metal staircase on the rear of the ominous-looking vehicle, which the Alvis Motor Co. of England built for the British military.

"Are we ready? Are we ready to go?" shouted tour guide Joe Parks.

The kids screamed and covered their faces as the beast lurched down the ramp into the harbor's green-gray water. The water gurgled up the front of the vehicle, rising three inches up the driver's windshield.

For a moment, it looked like the truck would become a submarine. But it floated, to the pupils' relief. It cruised in the harbor, past moored sailboats and the site of a former chrome plant, under a brilliant blue sky flecked with clouds.

When the vehicle tried to drive back up the ramp to continue the tour on land, it sputtered, groaned, and rolled back down into the water. It rumbled up the slope again, but again rolled back down. Bottles and trash churned in the foam as the vehicle floundered like an injured manatee.

"Too much weight," someone shouted. "Maybe we should have the kids get out on the pier."

That proved unnecessary. The Stalwart chugged up the ramp on the next try.

"It's a work in progress," said tour guide Ed Kaiser.

For the next 90 minutes, the vehicle bounced up and down the streets of Fells Point, downtown, Otterbein and Locust Point. The cherry blossoms were in bloom, the sun blazed, wind whipped through the windows and bicyclists stared at the monster machine, whose passengers ride six feet above traffic.

This was the first trip for the tour guides. Squinting under black eye patches and pirate hats, they studied clipboards with notes about Baltimore history.

Passing around a microphone, the guides offered tidbits of local history. They gave the location of the first deaths of the Civil War (the President Street train station) and told the story of the statue of Babe Ruth outside Camden Yards, which has a glove on the wrong hand.

As the vehicle rumbled past the intersection of Eastern Avenue and Bond Street, Kaiser instructed his passengers to sniff the sweet smell of baking bread.

"What you smell is John Paterakis' H&S Bakery," said Kaiser. "What does H and S stand for? Hot and Soft. Actually, it's hard and stale," he said, joking.

Correct answer: H and S stands for Harry Tsakalos and Steve Paterakis, the bakery's founders.

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